Read The Paris Architect: A Novel Online
Authors: Charles Belfoure
He had hated his father, but now he wondered if he was more like his father than he wanted to admit.
As Lucien walked on in the glaring heat of the July afternoon, he looked up at the buildings clad in limestone (a sedimentary rock of the calcium carbonate family), with their beautiful rusticated bases, tall windows outlined in stone trim, and balconies with finely detailed wrought-iron designs supported on carved stone consoles. Some of the massive double doors of the apartment blocks were open, and he could see children playing in the interior courtyards, just as he had done when he was a boy. He passed a street-level window from which a black and white cat gazed sleepily at him.
Lucien loved every building in Paris—the city of his birth, the most beautiful city in the world. In his youth, he had roamed all over Paris, exploring its monuments, grand avenues, and boulevards down to the grimiest streets and alleys in the poorest districts. He could read the history of the city in the walls of these buildings. If that Kraut bastard’s aim had been off, never again would he have seen these wonderful buildings, walk these cobblestone streets, or inhale the delicious aroma of baking bread in the boulangeries.
Farther down the rue la Boétie, he could see shopkeepers standing back from their plate-glass windows—far enough to avoid being spotted from the street but close enough to have seen the shooting. A very fat man motioned to him from the entrance of the Café d’Été. When he reached the door, the man, who seemed to be the owner, handed him a wet bar towel.
“The bathroom’s in the back,” he said.
Lucien thanked him and walked to the rear of the café. It was a typical dark Parisian café, narrow, a black-and-white-tiled floor with small tables along a wall, and a very poorly stocked bar on the opposite side. The Occupation had done the unthinkable in Paris: it had cut off a Frenchman’s most basic necessities of life—cigarettes and wine. But the café was such an ingrained part of his existence that he still went there daily to smoke fake cigarettes made from grass and herbs and drink the watered-down swill that passed for wine. The Café d’Été patrons, who had probably seen what had happened, stopped talking and looked down at their glasses when Lucien passed, acting as if he’d been contaminated by his contact with the Germans. It reminded him of the time he’d been in a café when five German enlisted men blundered in. The place had gone totally silent, as if someone had turned off a switch on a radio. The soldiers had left immediately.
In the filthy bathroom, Lucien took off his suit jacket to begin the cleanup. A few blobs of blood the size of peas dotted the back of the jacket, and one was on the sleeve. He tried to blot out the Jew’s blood, but faint stains remained. This annoyed him—he only had one good business suit. A tall, handsome man with a full head of wavy brown hair, Lucien was quite particular about his clothes. His wife, Celeste, was clever about practical matters, though. She could probably get the bloodstains out of his jacket. He stood back and looked at himself in the mirror above the sink to make sure there wasn’t any blood on his face or in his hair, then suddenly looked at his watch and realized his appointment was in ten minutes. He put his jacket back on and threw the soiled towel in the sink.
Once in the street, he couldn’t help looking back at the corner where the shooting had taken place. The Germans and the body were gone; only a large pool of blood marked the spot of the shooting. The Germans were unbelievably efficient people. The French would have stood around the corpse, chatting and smoking cigarettes. Full rigor mortis would have set in by the time they had carted it away. Lucien almost started trotting but slowed his pace to a brisk walk. He hated being late, but he wasn’t about to be shot in the back of the skull because of his obsession with punctuality. Monsieur Manet would understand. Still, this meeting held the possibility of a job, and Lucien didn’t want to make a bad first impression.
Lucien had learned early in his career that architecture was a business as well as an art, and one ought not look at a first job from a new client as a one-shot deal but rather as the first in a series of commissions. And this one had a lot of promise. The man he was to meet, Auguste Manet, owned a factory that until the war used to make engines for Citroën and other automobile makers. Before an initial meeting with a client, Lucien would always research his background to see if he had money, and Monsieur Manet definitely had money. Old money, from a distinguished family that went back generations. Manet had tried his hand at industry, something his class frowned upon. Wealth from business was considered dirty, not dignified. But he had multiplied the family fortune a hundredfold, cashing in on the automobile craze, specializing in engines.
Manet was in an excellent position to obtain German contracts during the Occupation. Even before the German invasion in May 1940, a mass exodus had begun, with millions fleeing the north of the country to the south, where they thought they’d be safe. Many industrialists had tried unsuccessfully to move their entire factories, including the workers, to the south. But Manet had remained calm during the panic and stayed put, with all his factories intact.
Normally, a defeated country’s economy ground to a halt, but Germany was in the business of war. It needed weapons for its fight with the Russians on the Eastern Front, and suitable French businesses were awarded contracts to produce war materiel. At first, French businessmen had viewed cooperation with the Germans as treason, but faced with a choice of having their businesses appropriated by the Germans without compensation or accepting the contracts, the pragmatic French had chosen the latter. Lucien was betting that Manet was a pragmatic man and that he was producing weapons for the Luftwaffe or the Wehrmacht. And that meant new factory space, which Lucien could design for him.
Before the war, whenever Lucien was on his way to meet a client for the first time, his imagination ran wild with visions of success—especially when he knew the client was rich. He tried to rein in his imagination now, telling himself to be pessimistic. Every time he got his hopes up high these days, they were smashed to bits. Like in 1938, when he was just about to start a store on the rue de la Tour d’Auvergne and then the client went bankrupt because of a divorce. Or the big estate in Orléans whose owner was arrested for embezzlement. He told himself to be grateful for any crumb of work that he could find in wartime.
Having nearly forgotten the incident with the Jew, Lucien’s mind began to formulate a generic design of a factory that would be quite suitable for any type of war production. As he turned up the avenue Marceau, he smiled as he always did whenever he thought of a new design.
Lucien checked his watch as he opened the massive wood door of 28 rue Galilée. It gave him a great sense of satisfaction that he was one minute early for his appointment. What other man could walk all the way across town, almost get shot by a German, clean a dead man’s blood off his jacket, and make it in time? The experience reinforced his belief that one should always budget an extra fifteen minutes to get to a client appointment. His prized Cartier watch, which his parents had given him upon his graduation from college, said 2:00 p.m., which was actually the time in Germany. The Germans’ first official act had been to impose the Reich’s time zone on occupied France. It was really 1:00 p.m. French time. After two years of occupation, the forced time change still annoyed Lucien, even more than the swastikas and ugly Gothic-lettered signs the Germans had plastered on all the city’s landmarks.
He stepped inside and was relieved to be in the dark, cool shade of the foyer. He loved these apartment blocks, created by Baron Haussmann when he tore down medieval Paris in the 1850s to re-create the city. Lucien admired the stonework and the strong horizontal lines created by the rows of windows and their metal balconies. He lived in a building on the rue du Caire that was similar to this one.
Since 1931, Lucien had abandoned all historical and classical references in his work to become a pure modernist architect, embracing the aesthetic of the Bauhaus, the style created by the German architect Walter Gropius that pioneered modern architecture and design (the one instance in which Teutonic taste definitely triumphed over the Gallic). Still, he admired these great apartment blocks that Napoleon III had championed. His admiration had grown when he’d visited his brother in New York before the war. The apartment buildings there were junk compared to those in Paris.
He walked to the concierge’s apartment, directly to the left of the entry. The glass door yawned open, and an old woman smoking a cigarette was sitting at a table covered with a garish yellow-flowered cloth. Lucien cleared his throat, and she said, without moving a muscle and still gazing into space, “He’s in 3B…and the lift’s out.”
As Lucien climbed the ornate curving stair to the third floor, his heart began to race—not only because he was out of shape, but also because he was so anxious. Would Manet have a real project for him, or would this meeting lead to nothing? And if it was a project, would it be a chance to show his talent?
Lucien knew he had talent. He’d been told by a couple of well-known architects, whom he had worked for in Paris after graduating from school. With a few years’ experience and belief in his ability, he then went out on his own. It was hard to build up a practice, doubly hard because he was a modernist and modern architecture was just beginning to be accepted. Most clients still wanted something traditional. Nevertheless, he was able to earn a steady living. But just as an actor needed a break-out role to become a star, an architect needed a career-making project. And Lucien, now thirty-five, hadn’t managed to land that one all-important project. He’d come close only once, when he’d been a finalist for a new public library but had been beaten out by Henri Devereaux, whose uncle’s brother-in-law was the deputy minister of culture. Ability wasn’t enough; one needed the right connections like Devereaux always seemed to have—that and luck.
He looked down at his shoes as they scraped the marble treads of the great stair. They were his client shoes, the one good pair he wore to meetings. A little worn, but they still looked shiny and fashionable, and the soles were in good shape. With leather in short supply, once a Frenchman’s shoes wore out he turned to wooden soles or ones of compressed paper, which didn’t fare so well in winter. Lucien was glad he still had a pair of leather-soled shoes. He hated the sound of wooden soles clattering on the streets of Paris, which reminded him of the clogs worn by peasants.
Lucien was startled when he looked up and found a pair of very expensive dark brown shoes on the third floor landing right in front of his face. Lucien’s gaze traveled up the sharply creased trouser legs to a suit jacket, then to the face of Auguste Manet.
“Monsieur Bernard, what a pleasure it is to meet you.”
Before Lucien reached the top step, Manet extended his hand.
Lucien pulled himself up the railing until he stood next to a lean, white-haired man in his seventies, with cheekbones that seemed to be chiseled from stone. And tall. Manet towered above Lucien. He seemed even taller than de Gaulle.
“The pleasure is my mine, monsieur.”
“Monsieur Gaston was always raving about the office building you did for him, so I had to see it for myself. A beautiful job.” The old man’s handshake was strong and confident, something you’d expect from a man who’d made millions.
They were off to an excellent start, Lucien thought as he took an instant liking to this elderly, aristocratic businessman. Back in 1937, he’d done a building on the rue Servan for Charles Gaston, the owner of an insurance company. Four stories of limestone with a curving glass-stair tower. Lucien thought it was the best thing he’d ever designed.
“Monsieur Gaston was very kind to refer you to me. How can I help you?” Most of the time, Lucien was open to the usual small talk before getting down to business. But he was nervous and wanted to see whether a real job would come out of this.
Manet turned toward the open doors of 3B and Lucien followed. Even the back of Monsieur Manet was impressive. His posture was ramrod straight, and his suit was expensive and fit him impeccably—the German major would’ve wanted the name of his tailor.
“Well, Monsieur Bernard, let me tell you what I’ve got in mind. A guest of mine will be staying here for a while, and I wish to make some special alterations to the apartment to accommodate him,” Manet said as they walked slowly through the place.
Lucien couldn’t imagine what the old man would want. The vacant apartment was gorgeous, with high ceilings and tall windows, ornate wood paneling, huge columns that framed the wide entries into the main rooms, beautiful fireplaces with marble surrounds, and parquet floors. And all the bathrooms and the kitchen looked up to date with porcelain-on-steel sinks and tubs with chrome fixtures. The unit was large by Parisian standards, at least twice as large in floor area as a normal apartment.
Manet stopped and faced Lucien.
“I’ve been told that an architect looks at a space differently from the rest of us. The average person sees a room as it is, but instinctively the architect envisions how it could be changed for the better. Is that true?”
“Absolutely,” replied Lucien with pride. “A man would view a run-down, out-of-date flat as very unappealing, but an architect, in his imagination, would renovate that space into something quite fashionable.” Lucien was getting excited. Maybe the old man wanted him to redo the place from top to bottom.
“I see. Tell me, monsieur, do you like a challenge? To solve a unique problem?”
“Yes, indeed, I love to come up with a solution for any architectural problem,” said Lucien, “and the more challenging, the better.” He hoped he was telling Manet what he wanted to hear. If Manet asked him to fit the Arc de Triomphe in here, he’d say it was no problem. You didn’t turn down work in wartime. Any fool knew that.
“That’s good.” Manet walked across the salon and put his hand on Lucien’s shoulder in a fatherly way. “I think it’s time to give you a little more background on this project, but first let us talk about your fee. I have a figure in mind—twelve thousand francs.”